Despite his commitment to forward-actuated narratives and his characters’ ability to move—and fast; they often run—through the world, Jean-Pierre Melville makes meaty films, a cinema of heft. Time hangs tough in his world of men. It was no surprise that Rialto’s theatrical re-release of Le Doulos (1962), Melville’s seventh feature, did not generate the same buzz as their efforts the year prior with Army of Shadows (1969), his World War II resistance epic. But there’s a level field now, market and interest be damned, with theCriterion Collection adding the earlier picture to its catalog this week. This knowing serie noir is minor by comparison, sure, but, then again, that silhouette war picture is minor, too, in its own way. Both films adhere to a delimited set (often trios, sometimes quartets) of masculine characters with little narrative space for women (Monique Hennesy’s beat down in Le Doulos is iconic, awful and Simone Signoret comes off mannish in Army, posturing herself a fighter first; both get killed by men); both films are “about” the world’s tests for fraternal bonds; both are about failure; both are marked by a curious attention to giveaway interstitials of clocks, of a look up, of walls empty and plentiful, so many things) and inward trajectories where the end game is less fatal than illuminative, however brutal and deliberate the swath carved across desolate earth winds.
Le Doulos opens with some text explaining its title, giving two senses of this slang term: (1) a hat and (2) the one who wears it, the police informer. Most of the suspense of the picture revolves around who did what and what was said to who off-screen—and what will necessitate reconciliation, if that’s possible. Of course, as our own Glenn Kenny points to in his accompanying essay, there are no happy endings in stories like this. I trust this will not “spoil” the film: one should know, before popping the disc in the player, that Jean-Paul Belmondo’s faraway and shrouded eyes on the DVD cover tell you whatever he is looking towards (dreaming of?) is a lie. This elegant, simple art design suggests the roadblock types he’ll encounter: there’s a gun and a girl and punching bag Serge Reggiani in the way, for one; for another, blackness is an easy trope for negation. The first time we see top-billed Belmondo, some 17 minutes into the picture, his face is a contour, a shadow, a shade drawn. He plays Silien, a secretive and mostly cold hood who wears his hat indoors. Silien enters the film delivering tools to Reggiani’s Maurice Faugel, our initial focal point, who plans to rob a safe in a big, empty house on the edge of town (and reason?). From this first encounter, Silien offers newly-free-from-the-clink Faugel a way out of his petty and pathetic criminal cycles, but Faugel rejects it, blind to Silien’s level of camaraderie; he only has eyes for his own hurt and greed. In this light, it’s easy to see Le Doulos as a doomed romance between these end-of-the-line goons.
Things go wrong, plans get compromised, a cop dies and Faugel blacks out shot, in the shoulder. From here we jump between the two men, with more focus on Silien’s orchestrations outside the law—how he plays it, in equal measure, against itself and those on the other side of its arbitrary lines. People are props, more tools, to him. Indeed, he abuses Therese like a doll, playing kind and gentle before the base belittlement; and his lost love is just another thing to claim, to steal back. Like most con men, he’s looking to get out, to settle with the one he loves, and it slowly dawns on the audience that his motivation, while selfish, is rooted in extra-criminal desires and principles—in off-screen back story—that might resemble a virtuous and simple life were it not for all the murders wrought and the lies told to get there.
Another bit of text appears onscreen early on (just after the credits), a cynical moral from Louis-Ferdinand Céline: “One must choose—to lie or to die.” And lies proliferate. Again: it’s willful. Melville invites the viewer to disbelieve anything these men say. Their lies fold yet more weight onto them, onto the film. Are those motivations simple? (Hardly.) What is virtuous in a world this barren? (Extrication, of course; but it’s never that simple.) Who’s the hat man? (A woman?) Where are those trains heading? (Nowhere in particular.) How come that colt can’t warn Silien? (Do we care that his end is near?) Forget about the answers. We all will die. The trick, it seems, is to not lie—providing you can, and if you aren’t killing your way to a fake haven (even: a fake halo), that should prove possible (even probable). We watch Silien dig up the past only to deny it, turn it over and, in the end, accept his final flight forward, which is a fall onto his back. As if that was a surprise.